For those readers who are unfamiliar with the conference, AWP tends to be a pilgrimage for American writers as it provides great panels on everything from writing craft to culture, an opportunity to network with publishers, journals, and reviews who are accepting submissions, information on MFA programs around the country, and an incredible book fair where all of your book buying fantasies will come true. I’m not going to lie, there have been times when I’ve considered abandoning the clothing I packed to make more room in my suitcase for the great new books I bought at a sweet conference discount price.
This year, though, it is unusually quiet here at the annual AWP Conference. Those of you who follow such news may have heard by now that the book fair got reconfigured because of vendor cancellation and a lot of panels have been canceled completely. There are a lot of strong feelings out there about whether this year’s conference should have been cancelled due to concerns about the Coronavirus, but I have been really happy to see that for the most part, whether folks decided to sit this one out or go forward with their plans to come this year, they’ve been pretty respectful of others’ choices. For the record, this post is not about making a defense for one stance or another: I just really wanted to share some of the big surprises and unexpected takeaways from the first day at AWP.
In years past, there have been so many attendees, so many interesting (packed) panels, tons of events, and wave upon wave of book fair shoppers. This year is in many ways the opposite of all that, so you might expect that since I am here as an editor, a book seller, and a writer I might feel more than a little bit discouraged about how things are going. But I’m actually finding a lot of potential for this to end up being one of the best AWPs ever. Here are some reasons why.
Let’s start with the book fair. As always, it is a book buyer’s paradise and a great place to shop for the right MFA program or new place to submit your writing. But the crowds in years past were so large that sometimes it was hard to see the forest for the trees, and that made it harder to network in meaningful ways. This year, however, crowds are sparser and people are moving slower. The printed book fair guide, with its key listing the vendors in attendance and where to find them, is obsolete due to cancelations and repositioning to avoid empty spaces on the fair floor. The result is that people seem to be looking at booths more carefully and spending more time in them instead of passing through. While there are fewer publishers here selling their books, that is not at all to say that there is a shortage of great titles to peruse. There are thousands. Without the crush, people are lingering longer over the books, asking questions about publishers and programs, and connecting in meaningful ways. One attendee made the observation that this year’s conference seemed to have some of the same magic that AWP had a decade ago—more of a feeling of openness—more connection. As a vendor, I’m finding that to be true. At the Slant Books booth we are having more great talks with authors we might want to publish and our book sales so far have been higher than usual. Other vendors I’ve talked to have reported the same findings.
Another reason why this year’s gathering may prove to be milestone has to do with how the conference functions and how its offerings are accessed by AWP participants. Things may be a little bit chaotic in the moment, but the circumstances have forced organizers to think on their feet and begin to explore how technology can be used to change the face of participation as panelists, keynote speakers, vendors, and attendees. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think the efforts being made now to rise to the demands of this year’s conference may end up revolutionizing what the conference does and how they do it in the years to come.
Come what may, this conference will stand out fondly in my mind because of an amazing experience I had at one of the late morning panels. If you are attending #AWP20, and you are feeling heartbroken about your favorite panel being cancelled, I’d like to propose an idea: SHOW UP ANYWAY and bring your voice. You may find that you’ve just walked into the most informative, inspiring gathering you’ve ever attended. Here’s a real life example:
Yesterday, I hustled over to catch a panel called “The Role of Women Editors with Small Presses and Literary Journals.” A room full of mostly women sat with anticipation, waiting for things to get started, but ten minutes after the panel was supposed to begin it became apparent that none of the panelists were showing up. People began to leave and some walked out angry.
Then something magical happened.
A woman who had recently started a small Texas press stood up and addressed the room. To paraphrase, she said: “Listen y’all. I bet there are plenty of women in this room who can speak to this topic. How many here are editors or publishers of small presses? Raise your hands. Get up here!”
And just like that an impromptu panel got started and it was AMAZING. People asked great questions, and the women who stepped up to serve as panelists offered some diverse perspectives and fabulous insights and advice based on their own experiences in publishing. Over the course of the hour, a notebook made its way around the room for people to put down their email address if they wanted to start new discussions about questions that the panel did not have time to address. Afterward it was placed up front at the panelists’ table for folks to take a picture of. The beginnings of an online group will likely be the result.
After the panel was called to a close, instead of rushing off to catch the next event, many people lingered and talked in clusters. I approached the woman who initially rallied us together to thank her and she replied, “Well, I can’t take credit for the idea. I attended two other panels earlier today where people suggested doing this kind of thing.”
To that I say: You can absolutely take credit for taking action on a good idea and speaking up.
It goes without saying that women get shit done (especially Texas women, apparently), but I want to acknowledge how inspired I was by these women in action. And it thrilled me to think that this impromptu panel situation was happening in other meeting rooms too because it really reflects the spirit of AWP, the reason why so many people come year after year to connect with their tribe: to exchange great ideas and encourage one another, to discover opportunities for education and growth (and, oh yeah, to fill our canvas totes with all the books). It may be a “hug and handshake free AWP” this year, but those hugs and handshakes are happening in energy and spirit.
If you are at AWP this year, or you know people who are in attendance, please share this story. Even though there are far fewer people here this year, I assure you the place is still packed with kind, intelligent people who love books and writing and have worthwhile thoughts to share. We’ve made the trek, we have access to places to congregate, and we have our voices! If your panel got canceled, start your own conversations, or take a chance and show up to the panel anyway with intention to act.
I’m looking forward to what Day 2 of #AWP20 in San Antonio may have in store.
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